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Livestrong Foundation After Lance Armstrong: Will It Survive?

By on Thursday, August 15, 2013

CBS News has an interesting piece on the Livestrong Foundation and its efforts to dis-entangle itself from disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong and launch a new identify apart from him. The news story and the charity’s efforts beg the question – will one of America’s most well-known charities survive a crisis of epic proportions, or go by the wayside for good?

Now I’m not so sure. In the past, I have praised the Livestrong Foundation for making many of the right moves in handling the crisis precipitated by Lance Armstrong and thinking about its own longevity, so it could continue to help cancer survivors. But today, I can’t do that.

Their website sets the right verbiage with a dominant “Mission Above All Else” greeting site visitors. And the online features about cancer survivors with touching personal stories are prominent. But their actions don’t exude the right tone for a charity on a comeback.

If  I had been hired to give Livestrong advice on how to work its way out of the trick box the charity has landed in, I would have suggested that they tally up the number of people who want their money back. Then look at their rainy day fund, and start writing checks. While most charities don’t give refunds on donations, the reality is that  some donors feel cheated – and a few are so disillusioned that they have launched a lawsuit to try to get their donations back. The amount of headache that such a lawsuit will cause, the dirty laundry that it will unearth, the financial cost it will entail, and the media stories that will continue to link the charity to Lance Armstrong’s misdeeds, could do significant damage to a struggling brand. The CEO’s “on point” message –  that “a small, tiny percentage of people” want their money back – is also a big target. If only a few people want their money back, then why not apologize and send out some checks? And move forward with a clean slate.

I would also recommend that the Livestrong Foundation seriously consider ditching the color yellow, which is still featured prominently on their website and permeates many of the products and fundraising events for the organization. I’m sure plenty of branding experts told the foundation’s PR staff that their equity in yellow was so high, that they would be crazy to abandon it. And I’m sure many of their supporters and the families they serve still love yellow because they associate it with the foundation’s work that has touched their lives. This is the organization that got millions of Americans to wear plastic yellow bracelets and launched a nonprofit envy-craze for awareness bracelets that has never fully abated.

But here’s the problem -yellow = Lance Armstrong. The color yellow is so well-known for its linkage to the winning jersey of the Tour de France and associated with Lance Armstrong, that the color yellow is a “scarlet letter” for the Livestrong Foundation. So long as yellow permeates the Foundation’s branding, the taint of the Lance Armstrong scandal remains for those who aren’t sure they can trust the foundation.

If the Livestrong Foundation is going to survive, it needs to soothe the wounds of its supporters, abandon the last vestiges of its relationship with Lance Armstrong, and chart a new future built around its mission.

Ami Neiberger-Miller is a public relations strategist and writer. She is the founder of Steppingstone LLC, a virtual and independent public relations practice near Washington, D.C. that provides public relations counsel, social media advice, writing services, and creative design work for publications and websites (portfolio). Ami blogs frequently about media relations, social media, public relations and other issues. She also reviews books on her blog about public relations, nonprofit life, work-family balance and social media practice. Follow her on Twitter @AmazingPRMaven.

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